Lincoln's journey to the Second Inaugural

Written by Peter Smith on .

Abraham Lincoln giving his second Inaugural Address 4 March 1865

One-hundred fifty years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Address -- or was it sermon? It was an intricate piece of theological parsing of the Civil War with its incredible carnage.

I wrote about the speech and its religious significance here.

As the experts have said, this was not merely a political speech with a God-bless-America tacked on at the end. It's woven through with speculation about God's providence -- the guidance of history by a personal and righteous deity, not impersonal forces. And it wasn't new.

In a note to himself in 1862, as the war was going badly and bloodily, he wrote:

"The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party — and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true — that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds."

 And in 1864, he wrote the following to Kentucky leaders, trying to explain to his native state why he evolved from viewing the Civil War is strictly about preserving the Union into one about abolishing slavery, which had remained legal in the Bluegrass State. 

"I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. [He then goes on to give several examples of when he refused to free slaves early in the war.] 

"In telling this tale I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation's condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected. God alone can claim it. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God."



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